New figures show demographic change greatest in Sonoma County’s youngest, biggest cities

Ethnic diversity in Sonoma County continues to lag the more urban parts of the Bay Area, but new regional demographic figures show the makeup of the county’s youngest generations could eventually close that gap.

All of Sonoma County’s nine cities have populations with white majorities, ranging from a high of 83 percent in Sebastopol, with fewer than 8,000 residents, to a low of 55 percent in Santa Rosa, the largest city with 35 percent of the county’s more than 500,000 residents.

Similarly, the gap between whites and Latinos, the next largest ethnic group, is the largest in Sebastopol, which has a 10 percent Latino population, the smallest share of all the cities, followed by the city of Sonoma where white residents make up 81 percent of the population and Latinos account for 14 percent.

Santa Rosa has among the highest share of Latino residents in the county, at 32 percent, and diversity in the school-age population is far greater, with more than 62 percent of elementary-age students coming from Latino families - part of a historic shift that remade California by the turn of the century into a majority-minority state, with Latinos making up the largest ethnic group.

The demographic change in Sonoma County is making slower inroads in the general population, with the biggest shifts in diversity in places like Santa Rosa, with a younger population than in Sebastopol, where the largest group of residents skew older.

“Younger populations are generally more racially diverse,” said Christina Baker, associate professor and chair of Sonoma State University’s Department of American Multicultural Studies. “With Santa Rosa having a younger population than Sebastopol, on average, the racial demographics may correspond with these age demographics.”

Sonoma County’s demographics are essentially a tale of two ethnic groups, as the Asian and black populations combined come to no more than 7 percent in any city, according to new demographic statistics culled by the Association of Bay Area Governments from U.S. Census data.

The county’s unincorporated area has more than 140,000 residents, 70 percent white and 22 percent Latino.

In four cities, Latinos account for about one-third of the population: Healdsburg at 34 percent, Santa Rosa and Windsor at 32 percent and Cloverdale at 31 percent.

Herman Hernandez, founder and chairman of Los Cien, a Sonoma County Latino leadership group, said the figures reflect change foreseen decades ago showing the increasing diversification of California and the North Bay.

“I love looking at these numbers,” he said, predicting the 2020 Census will report a still-larger share of Latinos in Sonoma County, assuming it is not skewed by questions about citizenship that he said might discourage Latino participation.

The trend is obvious, Hernandez said, considering the Latino numbers in the county’s public schools.

In countywide public school enrollment last year, Hispanic students outnumbered whites, 46 percent to 43 percent, exactly reversing the figures in 2014, according to the state Department of Education. The student ethnic majority shifted in 2016, when Latino students accounted for nearly 45 percent, less than 1 percent more than whites.

Asian students (3 percent) and blacks (2 percent) tracked closely to the overall county population last year.

But Hernandez said he was dismayed by the fact that Latino presence on public, private and nonprofit governing boards does not match their share of the population.

The question to ask, he said, is why doesn’t Latino participation in community leadership positions “mirror the demographics.”

Baker, who is African American, said she was struck by the number of cities with zero percent blacks: Healdsburg, Windsor and Sonoma. The other six cities have black populations from 1 percent to 3 percent.

Neighboring but more expensive Marin County has four cities with zero percent black populations - Belvedere, Fairfax, Mill Valley and Tiburon - and is “strikingly different than most other communities in the Bay Area,” she said.

Only six other Bay Area cities, including Calistoga, have zero percent black populations.

Among the nine Bay Area counties, Marin has two of the least diverse communities, with Ross and San Anselmo both 90 percent white and with no other ethnic group at more than 4 percent of the population.

For analysts who assess diversity by the closeness of rates for all four ethnic groups, Vallejo in Solano County is at the top, with 24 percent whites, 23 percent Asians, 20 percent blacks and 25 percent Latinos.

East Palo Alto in San Mateo County has the largest proportion of Latinos (63 percent), while Oakland has the largest share of blacks (24 percent) and Milpitas in Santa Clara County is 67 percent Asian.

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